To me, one of the beauties of dystopian and apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic stories is in the ability to point a finger at a concept or idea rather than at a specific individual or institution. The concept or idea targeted for the story and finger-pointing is usually culturally entrenched and/or imposed on us now, in our current time. But rather than a contemporary story that might hit closer to actual individuals, policies, nations, religions etc., the dystopian and post-apocalyptic story strikes more universally. It is a problem not of one, or a group, but of all.
What works for me in the best of dystopian/post-apocalyptic stories is the combination of macro and micro themes. There’s no end to the creative, impending, likely and unlikely ways, in which we can annihilate ourselves. We can even abdicate all personal/social responsibility and lay blame to a meteorite. But no matter how it is we build and design our after-worlds, we must confront ourselves.
To me, the real value of a post-apocalyptic society as opposed to a true dystopian society is the reduction of the superfluous. Dystopian worlds paint portraits of a facet of our society gone hugely wrong but often civilization survives. In a post-apocalyptic world civilization has generally been laid waste. This allows for a macro thread to the story following what the writer might view as one of the greatest threats to our civilization. In my book Backbone I had multiple reasons for doing what I did. A world without viruses allowed me to dispose of the necessity of condoms (purely for the luscious freedom of writing sex scenes without them). It also allowed me to weave a thread of human arrogance into the story by showing how our reluctance to understand that every action we take on this planet has repercussions can spiral into devastation. We live in a world that is failing under the weight of a progressive nature that doesn’t take into account the permanence of our achievements. Our disposable culture has turned our planet into a dump. We have deforested huge tracts of land for homes, fences, furniture, decks, paper, and driven untold species into extinction. Trust me, I am a fan of our modern conveniences, which allow people like me the leisure to write books that people like you hopefully want to read, but we tend to do what we do without adequate and imaginative forethought. And because of that tendency—I hope you like hot weather—a lot—and aren’t too fond of water.
I chose to work with viruses (disclaimer: I am not anti-vaccine; I am anti-careless) and water/global warming for Backbone. I’m a Californian. Water is a big deal to us. In creating a post-apocalyptic world for Backbone, I had a canvas on which display, front and center, the micro thread of our interior landscape as individuals. The good, the bad. The heroic, the cowardly. All the things that follow us no matter where we run. Not subtle, but fun to write, and maybe meaningful. Truly, I am fascinated with people who are good without social pressure. Think of the atheist who practices daily acts of kindness. In Backbone, both Brey and Hank were those kinds of people. Hank was more affected by the ugliness of the new world. Brey never lost hope or courage. I believe that hope is an act of will and defiance. It is an easy thing to lose, an easy thing to succumb to the darkness. Giving in to conditions, even immoral, brutal conditions, can bring a kind of light and ease to one’s life. Hang with the stronger group, and you can rape and steal and take the little pleasures that beat back the horror and struggle for you. It’s a dog eat dog world out there.
Hank tried to control the dark. Brey defied it.
Am I partial to Brey? Yes. I’m partial to rebels. I’m partial to stories that strip away the trappings of the good life and leave only those things that people will fight and die to keep. For some people, that comes down to their life at any cost. For others, like Brey, it’s about family and love and the best of who we are.